Advertisement
Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
INPHO/Morgan Treacy Is Liam going back to the Nore for a fifth winter in a row?
# Drive For Five
History beckons for the winner on a sensational September Sunday
Weekend GAA preview: Kilkenny’s guarantee of hurling immortality – or Tipperary’s most famous All-Ireland ever?

HISTORY IS ALWAYS being made. In truth, any match could be said to be a historic clash. But some matches captivate the imagination much more than others, and seem like they will be remembered for aeons to come.

Kilkenny’s ‘drive for five’ began in the shadow of disappointment. 6,891 people watched the Cats hammer Westmeath in Nowlan Park on a June evening. The previous year Kilkenny had crashed out in an All-Ireland semi-final to a Ger Farragher-inspired Galway.

On that day, when the scoreline of 5-18 to 4-18 suggested a closer game than that fixture truly was, Kilkenny were – in a way that it’s almost strange to conceive of now – second best. Galway got the start they needed, and Cody’s Cats didn’t have it in their arsenal to respond.

In a way it was that defeat – the second Kilkenny had met with that year, after losing out in Leinster to Wexford – that was the making of the modern Kilkenny side. Pundits regularly suggest that the key to Kilkenny’s modern success is that Brian Cody learns from every single game – and it’s easier to learn where things are going wrong when you can see them costing you success.

As a result, Kilkenny are probably the best example of a well-drilled team that any sportswriter could care to suggest. Their preparation is beautiful in its simplicity: their training is so intense, as is the competition for places in the starting team, that when it comes to the game, it’s nothing the team hasn’t seen before. In fact, it’s almost less intense. Championship hurling is intense, but Kilkenny training is worse.

Win the ball. Then win it again. And again.

In a session shortly before their semi-final against Cork, the panel of 30 lined out in two sides of 15 to play each other. A goalkeeper would puck out a ball, and the people it would travel to were first told: gain possession. If they cannot gain possession, then their job is to stop the opponents getting it.

Play continues for a few seconds, then Brian Cody blows his whistle. Out comes a puck-out from the other end. Players challenge for the ball. Then the whistle blows, and out comes another. Over and over. Each of the 30 desperate to prove that they are better deserving for a spot on the 15 come Sunday. An intense workout, fought intensely.

On another occasion they played for 90 minutes with only the briefest of intervals, and with Cody rarely blowing the whistle for any foul of any sort. Intense and non-stop. Even when the ball went out of play, it was returned immediately by a selector. There’s no time to stop. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that when Kilkenny come up against the likes of a Wexford or Offaly, there’s simply no comparison.

Since their loss to Galway in August 2005, Kilkenny have played 21 championship games. Lost 0, drawn 0, won 21. One would think, therefore, that the All-Ireland final is a foregone conclusion. The only reason it isn’t is because the closest Kilkenny have come to being toppled is against a team perversely raised in their own image: in the 2009 All-Ireland final against Tipperary.

How close the Premier came

And Tipperary did come close. Kilkenny’s usual modus operandi in most games is to get as far ahead as early as possible – usually with a goal or two – so that the opposition, by the time they have a hope of settling, were already dead. Tipperary, simple, toppled the cart. They scored early, and man-for-man kept it with them.

Most impartial observers will commit that a questionable penalty call with ten minutes to go – when Kilkenny were two points down – was the turning point. After the penalty, Kilkenny grabbed another quick goal, found themselves four up, and closed the game out.

But for that hour, Tipperary were not only up there with Kilkenny, they were possibly better. Lar Corbett was having the game of his life up front, alongside Eoin Kelly. Noel Hickey and Tommy Walsh, ordinarily two of the most reliable backs in the game, were struggling. Tipperary had somehow tried to find the magic switch that turned on the intensity in a way Kilkenny, even in training, didn’t find.

Really, whether this year’s decider will be anyway quite as close will depend on whether Tipperary can do something similar again. There is some reason to believe that last year’s game was something of a flash in the pan: that the Premier excelled themselves in a way that they may not be able to replicate.

Can they do it again?

Kilkenny’s provincial championship passed with predictable ease. Tipperary’s started with a whimper, being beaten by a demure Cork. The back door gave them a chance to work the stiffness out of their system – capped with a semi-final demolition of Munster winners Waterford – but the performances were never quite as slick or indeed, as intense, as they were in September 2009.

Of course, none of those games were against Kilkenny. The Tipp class of 2009 would have won the All-Ireland in any other year. Last year, they felt the fates conspired against them. This year, finally given the chance to avenge the defeat, and having already battled the sense of occasion that final day brings, the motivation could easily be enough to put the fire back in the Premier belly.

So how’s it going to go?

Sunday, though unpredictable (Kilkenny are 2/5 with the bookies, the longest odds they have been for a long, long time), will realistically boil down to a couple of things. If Tipperary are as intense as they were last year, they stand the best chance they have in years – especially with Henry Shefflin, clearly not at 100% fitness, somewhat handicapped by his injured left knee.

If Shefflin manages to confound medical convention – and let’s face it, Kilkenny have dolloped out their fair share of magic – and provide a performance as devastating as the likes of Eddie Brennan, TJ Reid and the newly-energised Richie Power will display, then it’s difficult to see just how Kilkenny’s path to sporting immortality can be blocked.

You never know – we could be doing it all over again in three weeks’ time. Could.

GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Final: Kilkenny v Tipperary, Croke Park, 3:30pm
GAA Hurling All-Ireland Minor Final: Kilkenny v Clare, Croke Park, 1:15pm